Title: The Red Thread
Author: autumnsoliloquy
Summary: Three Past-Lives of Kurosaki Ichigo and Kuchiki Rukia, and One that isn't. Sorta AU.
This is an entry to the Rukia Birthday Contest at BA's IchiRuki Forum, to the theme "The Us That Isn't Us".
Disclaimer: Kubo Tite owns Bleach and IchiRuki.

"Give me the sword, shinigami. Let's give it a try."
"It is not shinigami. It's Kuchiki Rukia."
"I see. I'm Kurosaki Ichigo. Let's pray this doesn't become the last meeting for both of us."

Kyoto, July 1770

Iguchi Takezo stood by the majestic towering structure that was the West Gate. Another day had passed in which he guarded one of the four gates of the bustling town, inspecting the passage of people and cattle in and out of Kyoto throughout the whole day. Over the horizon loomed the last rays of the setting sun; soon his watch would be over and the next one would start.

"Those young punks are late," grumbled Fujiyama, one of his colleagues sharing his duties as the Watch of the West Gate. "Again."

"I told you they're irresponsible," piped Oda, the other colleague, in disgust beside Takezo. "I don't understand how the Lord trusts them to be in charge of the West Gate, especially of the most important watch of the day; during twilight!"

Takezo merely stayed silent. His two other companions were much more senior than he was, and he was not much older than the greenhorns they referred to as "young punks". Takezo knew that the older samurai were simply feeling indignant at the daimyo's decision that seemed to place the younger recruits at a more respectable position that theirs. He supposed that he too should feel such disdain at being relegated to lesser importance than his younger subordinates, but Takezo found that he simply did not care. He did not bother himself with such petty issues that troubled idle and aging samurai.

"And because of them I am making Maiko-chan wait," Fujiyama sighed, then turning to Takezo he said, "Ne, Iguchi… Why don't you join us tonight at the Okiya after we've turned over the watch?"

Thankfully it was at that precise moment that the guards of the next watch decided to appear, so Takezo was spared the trouble of turning down the invitation. Inviting as it might have appeared to most samurai of his age and stature, Takezo could think of many other better things to spend his evening than to accompany his graying companions in seeking pleasure of the flesh in the Geisha district.

The younger samurai apologized profusely at their delay, to which Takezo's companions responded with an air of superiority and disdain. Just as he was about to bid them farewell for the day, Fujiyama repeated his offer to Takezo once more.

"Come on, Iguchi. Don't tell me you're leaving without joining us again?"

"Thank you for the offer, Fujiyama-dono," Takezo responded as politely as he could. "But I already have previous arrangements for the evening."

The older man opened his mouth to protest, but Oda gave him a look that said it was pointless to insist. Takezo said his goodbye at last and turned the other direction, but not before a knowing smirk that did not evade his notice crept up in Oda's sagging face.

Takezo did not even need to inquire what that annoying gesture meant. He knew there was a rumour going around the clan that the reason why the famous war hero Iguchi's only son often refused invitations to go to the district was because he preferred the attentions of men to the coquettish smiles of courtesans. It wasn't the truth of course, Takezo knew that for himself. But he could not be bothered to force himself to mingle with intolerable company in such an intolerable activity just to set things right and clear his name. His sexual preference was the least of his priorities about his reputation.

Being the son of a hero from the most recent war involving the clan, there was much to live up to. Takezo supposed that he should rise up the ranks befitting of his father's son, or at least his relatives expected him to. Especially after the blunder that was his younger sister's marriage. At the age of fifteen she met and fell in love with a young samurai of a small stipend than their family, which was not large to begin with. Of course the relatives objected to it, but Takezo could not bear to deprive his sister of her life's happiness, so he agreed to their union nonetheless.

But Kyoko's happiness was shortlived. Only five years into her marriage she became a young widow prematurely, when her husband was bound by the code to commit seppuku for his late father's mismanagement of the clan's funds. Kyoko was devastated, and Takezo saw that his sister was never the same again since. Sometimes he would inwardly agree whenever during one of the dreaded relatives' visits they would blame him for Kyoko's misfortune.

Lost in his musings, Takezo barely realized that it was already dusk and the sun had long hid behind the mountains. The streets of Kyoto were relatively empty at this side of the town, but he knew that there was always danger lurking at every corner. And indeed, across the distance he saw a group of sword-wielding men encircling a younger man threateningly.

Takezo judged the men as ronin, masterless samurai, from their shaggy, unkempt and haggard appearance. There were increasingly more of their kind in the recent years lurking about the streets. Their lone opponent seemed to be a samurai too, for there were two swords attached to his obi. His long hair was tied in a high ponytail; Takezo guessed that he must be no older than twenty.

The rogue samurai approached leeringly towards the young man, the circle surrounding him encroaching slowly within his ready sword's range. Suddenly, the young man lunged at his opponents recklessly, as if proving his inexperience to everyone in witness.

With sheer luck he managed to deflect half of his attackers, but those with more skill at the sword and far more experience were increasingly harder to counterattack. Takezo did not wish to partake in this streetside brawl as a spectator any longer and started towards home where he knew his scrolls of Confucius were waiting for him, but Kyoko's voice suddenly popped into his head. She always reprimanded him of minding his own business too much; that he should help those in need who happened to be in his vicinity.

Just as Takezo vacillated between his troublesome choices, the young man was pierced at the side by one of the ronin's sword. He fell to the ground, and from then on Takezo's instinct took over. Swords clashed and men flew at him from all directions, but five minutes later they were all lying on the ground unconscious.

Takezo threw a quick glance at the young man on the muddy earth among his fallen opponents. He was wincing in pain and the hand clutching his right shoulder glistened crimson in the dim lighting of the full moon above. Takezo heard his sister's voice in his head again. Cursing under his breath, he grabbed the younger man by his uninjured arm and dragged him to an alleyway a distance away from the scene.

At the close proximity, Takezo noticed that the young man must have been very young indeed, for he had a countenance that belied gentleness and innocence only the youth possessed. Takezo attempted to rip the boy's deathly pale hand away from his injury, but the boy merely pushed him away and cowered against the wall.

"How dare you interfere in my fight!"

Takezo hardly expected such a speech from someone whose life he had saved, much less from a kid many years his junior. The boy's voice had hardly broken, so he must not yet be at the brink of manhood.

"I would have defeated them perfectly had you not butt in!" The boy's bright eyes flared menacingly, but he was obviously in pain as his body slackened.

"Yeah right, kid. You would have died had I not intervened," Takezo said as he approached the boy once more and grabbed his bloody hand. "Now let me inspect your wound before you bleed to death."

The boy whined in protest, but he was fleeting in and out of consciousness that his grip on his shoulder gradually loosened. Takezo peeled his blood-soaked gi to reveal the mangled flesh caused by a precise slash across his upper right torso, which barely missed his collarbone. "You look like shit, kid. Are you out of your mind to take on—"

Bindings. There were bindings across the boy's chest.

The girl's chest.

But before he could even register the shock there was a sharp pain across his cheek as it received a powerful slap, and then a kick to the chest that sent him falling backwards. When he looked up, Takezo saw the girl clutching at her soaked gi and brandishing her sword wildly at him.

"How dare you!" she screamed indignantly.

"You're a…girl," Takezo replied rather stupidly. "What the hell are you—"

"Leave me or I will kill you!"

Takezo wanted to point out to her that she was more likely to kill herself at any rate than be a threat to him, but he could see her physical pain past her bravado so he inched carefully closer to her. "Look, kid, you're injured and you need a physician. I'll bring you—"

"No!" But that fierce reply took so much out of her she nearly fell backwards. However, the girl seemed to gather strength from an unknown source and Takezo couldn't help admiring the girl's resolve, albeit a foolish kind.

"I don't want to be helping you either but…" Takezo exhaled in frustration. "I'll bring you to a doctor, no questions asked. How about that?"
But before he even got a reply, the girl swayed a little before withering into a heap on the ground. Takezo rolled his eyes, got up on his feet and picked up the unconscious girl.

He really should have gone to the Okiya instead.

To Mr. Michael Chesfordshire, Head Butler of Longbourne Hall,

I am writing in response to your advertisement for the services of a housekeeper for your master's estate. It would be my pleasure and an honour to join the staff of Longbourne Hall, for I have heard a great deal about the master's benevolence towards the servants. I will be sending recommendations in my favour upon receipt of your positive reply to this letter. Do let it be known that I have a wealth of previous experience in managing houses and estates, on a few occasions as a handmaid but my resume comprises mostly of housekeeping duties.

I pray you to respond with convenient speed. And so I bid you farewell.

From Derbyshire, the xviii of October, 1845

Miss Elizabeth Linney

Tokyo, 2005

They first met at the script briefing of their very first film together. He was thirty years of age, she had just turned twenty. He had already had supporting roles in two previous movies, while she had no filmography to her name. She was rather intimidated by the idea of her face gracing the big screen and being watched by everyone, despite her initial excitement at getting her big break in the film industry.

"Rather stupid, don't you think," he whispered to her sideways as a ten-minute break was announced.

"Excuse me?" she replied with obvious indignation. She had felt rather inferior to him by experience alone, but she hadn't expected him to be this obnoxious.

Realisation dawned in his eyes and her retort was quickly dismissed with a laugh. "Oh, sorry, you got it wrong," he said to her with a piercing stare, "I meant the movie."

With that, she felt slightly mollified. But her feathers were already ruffled. They were off to a shaky start.

"Why would you want to play in a movie you think is stupid?"

He gawked at her with amusement.

"You're a newcomer in this industry, aren't you?"

No reply.

"Look, this film is a romantic comedy about a Geisha and a kung-fu fighter," he continued. "Don't you think the Japanese film industry is getting rather… lackluster nowadays?"

"No, I don't think so."

"Think about it. You'd think that they would have chosen a real Chinese guy to play my character if they were truly concerned about the integrity of the plot…"

"In Hollywood they chose a Chinese actress to play a geisha in Memoirs of a Geisha," she countered.

"Yeah, well, that's Hollywood. I prefer independent films. Have you seen Harold and Maude? That's my favourite movie of all time."

"Never heard of it. But I like indie films too. In fact, I think it's exactly because of the independent film industry that I disagree with your rather harsh criticism of our industry. Take Kurosawa Akira for example. The West seems to like his classic samurai films."

"Yeah, samurai and geisha – that's all the West knows of Japanese films. They like those classics because the Caucasians tend to exoticise us."

She sighed. "I heard there's a Japanese-language film that Clint Eastwood is directing this year. It's about war. World War II, to be precise. Now that's not about samurai and geisha."

"Well, who knows? Maybe a Japanese film would finally win Best Foreign Film at the Oscars – only when it's directed by a non-Japanese. How ironic!"

"You seem rather critical of our industry. Should I expect that I would be as jaded after a few films?"

He gave her a crooked smile. "Nah… I won't do this very long you know. My dream is to be a director, really. But somehow when I entered this field I ended up an actor."

"Is that a backhanded compliment to yourself?" She rolled her eyes.


"I didn't really aim to be an actress either," she said after a moment's silence. "I've always wanted to be a seiyuu. I love anime and everything… But I guess I just need to get noticed through acting first before I can pursue that… What?" He was staring at her in amusement.

"An otaku, eh?"

Another eyeroll. "Whatever."

At that moment the rest of the crew streamed back into the meeting room to resume the briefing. And that was the start of the lifelong friendship between Sakamoto Naohito and Nakamura Ayako.

England, December 1845

It was humanly impossible for Elizabeth to ascertain the enormity of the size of the estate towering in front of her as she stepped out of the carriage. She had served as a housekeeper for enough estates to last her a lifetime, many of them she could proudly state in her resume. But none of them were as grand and imposing as the old majestic castle that was Longbourne Hall.

"Miss Linney." A voice interrupted her reverie as she looked up at the castle in awe. "We have been expecting you. I pray that the journey has not wearied you?"

"Oh, not at all, sir."

"'Mr. Chesfordshire' would suffice, Miss Linney." Elizabeth could hardly conceal her astonishment. She had expected the Head Butler to be much older than the man who welcomed her now, judging from their correspondence of brief letters.

"You seem to have been disappointed in your expectations of myself, Miss Linney," Mr. Chesfordshire said with a friendly smile. He was not at all as Elizabeth expected indeed.

"Oh, forgive me, sir. I do not mean ill. It's just that I had expected Mr. Chesfordshire to be much… older."

To her surprise the man's smile suddenly vanished from his countenance, but before Elizabeth could regret her words, he was already leading her into the castle. "You are to attend the master's dinner tonight to be introduced. I suggest that you change out of your traveling attire as soon as possible, for it would be a shame to arrive late on your first day."

"But I had not been informed in your letters that I am to meet the master tonight."

"Well, madam, I'm afraid we do things rather out of spontaneity around here," he replied with a stony expression, but Elizabeth could have sworn there was a glint of amusement dancing in his blue eyes.

They met again an hour later after she had adjourned to her room to change into presentable clothes. Her room was small for one that is in a castle as huge as Longbourne Hall, but it was furnished simply enough to Elizabeth's taste. By the time she had arrived at the adjoining room to the dinner hall, she found that Mr. Chesfordshire was already standing by the door waiting for her.

"I'm afraid you are five minutes late, Miss Linney. The master's dinner has already started."

"Forgive me, sir."

Upon crossing the door, they found themselves in a spacious richly-furnished hall, in the middle of which stood a handsome oak dining table, at whose one end Elizabeth could see the back of its lone occupant.

"If I may interrupt your dinner, sir."

"Ah, Chesfordshire! How splendid! Would you like to join me for a meal?" The master's jovial and friendly deep voice lifted a huge burden off Elizabeth.

"It is kind of you, sir, but I am here tonight to inform you that the new housekeeper has arrived."

At once the master swung around to face them. He could not have been younger than five-and-sixty, Elizabeth thought. Even the dimly lit room could not hide the grey streaks of aging on his head. But he had a bright, handsome countenance that confirmed to Elizabeth that his reputation of being a kind master could not have been more true.

"Ah, so she has indeed!"

"My name is Elizabeth Linney, sir. It is an honour to be of service to you."

"Why, Chesfordshire, you hired a young lady this time!" The master possessed a hearty laugh. "Well, Miss Linney, would you like to join the master of this house for dinner?"

Elizabeth hesitated. The food on the table was enticing; she had never seen such scrumptious palatable dishes before even in her previous estate which was already considered to have been of repute. But remembering the butler's polite refusal earlier, she reckoned it was prudent to decline.

As she and Mr. Chesfordshire walked back to the servants' wing, the east wing, he said, "Now don't you be making eyes at the master, Miss Linney."

"I beg your pardon, sir?" Elizabeth retorted with indignation.

"I'd advise you to keep your distance, Miss Linney," Mr. Chesfordshire said. "The master is an honourable man, but he does have a soft spot for young ladies, even the servants."

"Well, if you must know, sir, I have no intentions of anything else besides doing my job as a housekeeper, as we've discussed in our correspondence."

"That is indeed prudent of you," he replied. "In any case, madam, I am afraid it is too late for you if it were otherwise."

"I don't quite follow you, Mr. Chesfordshire."

"The master has just been recently married," he said as he opened the door to the dining hall for the servants. It was much smaller than the one they had previously been in, but was just as impressive. "To the governess."

"The governess? You don't say that the master has children?"

"One, a daughter of ten years. Nobody knows where she came from. One winter the master suddenly arrived from one of his travels and then there she was, poor little Anne. No explanation was given at all. There were speculations that she was the product of one of his amorous affairs. Like I said, he has a soft spot for the young ladies. And of course, it is our policy in this estate to ask no questions unless necessary to our line of work."

They sat down at the table and the cooks started serving them the dishes. "If I may say so, Mr. Chesfordshire. Longbourne Hall is hardly what I expected."

"Oh, but you'll find it enjoyable here. The master is kind enough to allow me some of luxuries I would never have enjoyed elsewhere. The library, for example, is open to anyone in the castle."

"You are well-read then, I presume?"

"You seem surprised, Miss Linney," he said as they started their meal. "Just because it is hardly a prerequisite for those in our section of the society, does not mean literacy should not be pursued. Why, don't you have other ambitions to rise above your station? Is this what you really want?"

"I believe our work is a respectable kind, sir."

"Yes, of course. I did not mean it is detestable, but should we truly be content with our station in life?" His question had been asked in earnest.

"I don't know," she replied. She had never really thought about it. Coming from the villages where families had to till the earth for their nourishment, the place she had found in society did appear very favourable to her then. But the butler's question made her consider the possibilities.

"I suppose had I been born a gentleman's daughter, I would have been a talented lady indeed. I would have travelled all over the continent, maybe to India, or even to the Dutch East Indies."

"Perhaps, in due course," he said, meeting her gaze and at once, they were both consumed with a fit of laughter.

"One cannot change to which class he is born into, sir."

"Then I think you have nothing to worry about, Miss Linney. I'm certain you'll find no trouble at all during the course of your service here."

Nakamura Ayako Hospitalised – Serious Illness or Attempted Suicide?

TOKYO, March 2017 – As news of the recent hospitalization of Nakamura Ayako, one of Japan's most popular celebrities today, dominate the headlines in the media, the public is now speculating the reasons behind her confinement. Tomorrow marks one week of the actress' stay at Tokyo General Hospital. Members of the press have tried to reach the actress herself but were prevented by stringent security measures at the hospital. The doctors and hospital staff were also tight-lipped about Nakamura's case when interviewed.

The suspicious circumstances surrounding the hospitalization of the 32-year-old actress, known for her breakthrough role as a bubbly and unconventional geisha in The Shaolin and the Geisha (2005), have drawn much speculation about her physical and mental health.

Her legions of loyal fans nationwide are abuzz with suspicions of a serious life-threatening disease afflicting their idol, and many say they have noticed a drastic change in the actress' physical appearance over the years. Worried fans are concerned that Nakamura, who has been the centre of anorexia rumours in the past, is actually hiding a grave illness from the public.

A close friend informed this newspaper however, that her drastic weight loss is connected to her tumultuous and much discussed personal life. Many can still remember the very public bitter divorce from her ex-husband, seiyuu Takeuchi Hiroyuki two years ago. Back then fingers were being pointed at her close friend in the industry, fellow actor Sakamoto Naohito, with whom she made countless films over the decade, as the cause of the marriage breakdown. The usually reticent actor has publicly denied the accusations and insisted on the purely platonic nature of their now 12-year-long friendship, dashing the hopes of many of their fans who wished that reel would finally become real.

More hearts were broken when Sakamoto finally married his girlfriend of three years in a shotgun wedding last year. His son was born a few months ago. Once again, Sakamoto finds himself in the middle of public speculations over Nakamura's personal life, this time over her hospitalization. Many are wondering whether his marriage to another woman was the trigger that led to a foiled suicide attempt by the actress.

There is strong evidence to suggest a suicide attempt indeed: Neighbours of the actress claim to have heard a male voice shouting in horror in the morning of Nakamura's hospitalization. They also claim to have seen a distraught and guilt-ridden Sakamoto when the paramedics arrived at Nakamura's apartment. One can only assume that whatever it was that necessitated the actress' hospital treatment had something to do with Sakamoto.

The newspaper had tried to contact the actor and his manager but was denied for comments. Sakamoto's silence on this matter could only fuel the debate in the media further.

It has been seventeen months. (Seventeen months, four days and 3 hours, he tries to forget.)

Surprisingly, Ichigo finds that he doesn't even miss her in his daily life. Just as he had lived fifteen years of his life perfectly well without her before that fateful meeting, he functions in his roles as a brother, son, student and contributing member of society just as good.

They never were quite dependent on each other.

But then during those short unavoidable moments, that span of time in which he can't find anything else despite desperate attempts to fill them with something productive, something distracting, something that makes him think more than feel, during those times he thinks of her inadvertently. Sometimes it's as if the image of her fading figure has been burned into his retina, such that it's the only thing he sees when he closes his eyes to sleep. Sometimes it's simply just her voice, or a memory drifting into his consciousness during a tea break at the jack-of-all-trades shop.

And now, there is one memory that relives itself in Ichigo's mind. One that seems so far away, so long ago, back when she was still here with him, living in his closet, a clandestine fact shared only between the two of them.

"Oi, Rukia."

"What?" her voice wafting through the hardwood door of the closet, not even bothering to slide it open.

"What happens when shinigami die?"

There was silence from the other side of the closet door. Then, "Dying is not an option for you right now, Ichigo. It may seem like an enticing option to relieve yourself of your responsibilities now that you have my shinigami powers, but let me tell you that you will regret it if you choose death as your way out."

An audible flip of a page as an indication of annoyance. "She's reading manga again," he thought to himself. Ichigo glared at the closet door.

"So what exactly happens?"

Finally, the door slid open. "Why do you want to know?"

"Nothing. Just curious. Is there reincarnation or something? Or do they just dissolve into reishi like Hollows?"

Rukia sighed. "Well actually… I don't know."

Ichigo raised an eyebrow at her.

"We shinigamis don't really know what happens after our own death. I mean, it was never taught at the Academy. We just don't speak of it. Come to think of it, I've never really given it much thought. I guess when you're expected to live a really long afterlife, you don't have much time to think about what happens next."

Ichigo looked genuinely aghast at this revelation. "You don't know?"

Rukia threw a pillow across the room and it bounced off his head. "What's with that look?"

"Well, what do you think? Personally, I mean. What do you think happens after you die?"

Rukia regarded Ichigo thoughtfully as if mulling over his question. There was something melancholic about the expression on her face. "I guess… I guess I do want to believe in reincarnation. I like the idea that shinigami who've passed on are probably walking around this town right now."

"Why do you ask such troublesome questions anyway? I'm going to sleep, goodnight."

A thought suddenly pops up in Ichigo's head, a horrible thought; that if Rukia were to die right now, that could possibly be a way for him to see her again. But it is a stupid idea, he tells his brain off for thinking it up in the first place. He'd never want that to ever happen. Better that he never sees her again and she lives for eternity in Soul Society, than to only meet her through death. Besides, even if she were to be reborn into his world, she would no longer be the Rukia he knew; their paths would never cross again.

At that moment he has never felt like dying as much before. But he still has a long life to live, so he shoves that desire deep within and feels nothing once more.

Kyoto, July 1770

"I've stitched up the wound, sir. The blood loss would keep her in bed for a few days, but otherwise there should be no immediate danger," the physician said. "There is no cause for worry for your wife, sir."

Takezo was just about to rectify the old man's presumption, but the latter had left the room before he even noticed the mistake. It had been a few hours since he'd pick up this injured girl in the middle of a fight on the streets late at night, a tussle he shouldn't have even stuck his nose into. He had no choice but to hire a room for the night at a nearby inn, the housekeeper eyeing him suspiciously as he dragged his bloody companion to the room and called for a physician. And now, morning was dawning outside but the girl gave no indication of regaining consciousness any time soon. He couldn't possibly leave her here in her state. Kyoko's stern face flashed across his mind. How he wanted sleep so badly at that moment.

Just then the girl stirred. She gave an inaudible groan before opening her eyes weakly. Upon seeing him, she quickly retracted as she did before she fainted hours ago, the sudden movement causing her to wince in pain.

"Who are you?"

The edge of his lips twitched in annoyance. "Hey, calm down, all right? I saved your ass, remember?"

She regarded him suspiciously, then as if remembering the events of the previous night, her eyes shifted nervously around the room.

"Where am I?"

"At some inn," Takezo answered dismissively. "What's a puny little girl like you wandering around the streets of Kyoto picking fights with ronin, eh?"

She glared at him. "You said 'no questions asked'."

Takezo was surprised she even remembered he said that. He chose to ignore it and continued, "You do know that it's illegal for women to be impersonating samurai? From where did you steal these swords, huh?"

The girl huffed indignantly at his statement. "How dare you assert that I could commit such a lowly crime!"

"Ah, a samurai's daughter then."

Takezo must have hit the nail right on its head because she looked alarmed at having been found out. "Nevertheless you still have no right going around with two swords under your belt like that. Didn't your father teach you that women aren't supposed to impersonate men?"

He expected her to throw him another one of those dagger glares, but he was surprised to see her look away instead and stare at the patch of tatami beside her futon.

An awkward moment passed, which Takezo was eager to escape by any means. "Uh… I'll leave you to rest then. I have to pay the innkeeper for the room."

When he returned to the room an hour later, it was empty except for the futon neatly folded at the side. On it was a note with only four characters scribbled on it: Thank you.

Tokyo, April 2017

He visits her at the hospital weeks later. She thought he never would.

Despite the fact that it was he who found her and called the ambulance, he never once visited her during her stay at the hospital. Until now, at least.

She doesn't know whether to be angry, annoyed or simply glad to see him again.

"How's Takeshi?" is the first thing she asks.

He seems taken aback by the fact that it is an enquiry after his son. "Oh, he's fine. He's great. He's walking now, did I ever tell you?"

She smiled. He always has that glow on his face whenever they talk about his son. She always knew he'd make a good and proud father.

"You shouldn't have come," she says.

He says nothing for a while, busying himself with unloading the fruits he brought along with him. She knows he is feeling guilty for having not come earlier at all. Or maybe, he feels as if she was berating him for not visiting in the past few weeks.

"You are my friend, of course I'll come."

"No, you really shouldn't have," and this time she really means it. "I take a peek at the nurses' newspaper regularly, you know."

"You know it's the usual rubbish they churn out," but he is avoiding her eyes.

"Have you no consideration for your wife?"

Finally he gives up, sits by the edge of her bed and looks her straight in the eye. "Look, we aren't doing anything wrong and we have never done anything wrong. What's wrong with me visiting?"

"Well, your not visiting me earlier is what's wrong."

He looks almost sheepish, but he ignored her quip completely. "We've just proven to everyone that a straight man and a straight woman can be great platonic friends."

"The press doesn't seem to think so. Anyway, stop changing the subject."

"We're fine, my wife and I. Sometimes she gets jealous though, you know? Although I've explained to her time and again our friendship, I guess you can't blame her either. Sometimes… sometimes I wonder myself if I believe what I'm saying."

She raises an eyebrow. "Don't be stupid, Nao-kun. You've only ever loved one girl and that is your high school sweetheart. You told me that yourself years ago even before you knocked her up and married her."

He glares at her. "But you know… Do you remember that movie we watched last Christmas, Before Sunset? The female character says, the idea of only one person being the right one is absurd! And you know, maybe she's right. I'm starting to think so."

"You know what I think?" She tries not to laugh. "I think you're just getting overly sentimental because of the tragedy that is about to befall me."

A second later she regrets ever saying it, because his face falls and he looks so upset like she's never seen him as upset in their years together.

"I can't believe you hid it from me for so long."

"Oh don't be so melodramatic."

"I'm your best friend, how could you have kept it from me?" His tone belied anger.

"Is that why you didn't visit earlier?"

He looks away as an affirmation. "Are you really going to die?"

"Apparently so. The doctors say so, at least."

"What do you think happens when you die?"

"Oh, a lot of things. I think there's another world after death. Maybe like the Christian concept of Heaven, except less of a paradise. I'm hoping there's reincarnation too. Who knows, maybe we'll meet again? Then you'll be a grey old man and I'll be a young girl when we do meet. We can live out your favourite Harold and Maude, except the reverse. That'll be interesting, don't you think? Then of course, you will have to live to a ripe old age for that to happen. I hope your marriage works out better than mine did. You know how shitty divorce was for me…"

She continues on for the next few hours as if in a monologue, and he sits there quietly, merely observing her in silence, wishing that time would stand still and she would never ever stop.

Kyoto, September 1770

"Obaachan, do I really have to go for this ceremony?"

Yuki already knew the answer to that question, but she couldn't help whining anyway. If there was anything she hated more than her official duties, it was the ceremonies she was obliged to attend at her father's request. Not only were they boring and a complete waste of time for she served no real purpose other than be another ornament in the castle's spacious halls, but they were also troublesome as she had to endure hours of wearing layers and layers of heavy expensive cloth befitting of a princess.

She reckoned she could simply not turn up, but that would mean she'd have less bargaining power with her father when it came to how she spent her free time. So she'd have to endure another monotonous pointless celebration of another low-ranking samurai's success in his climb up the ranks.

"Of course you do, Yuki-sama," her nursemaid replied. She had been Yuki's surrogate mother ever since her real one passed away when she was young. "Besides, I heard this man defeated Ichinose Yuugo in a duel recently."

Yuki was impressed. Ichinose-sama was one of the strongest warriors in their clan, so whoever defeated him must be a great swordsman himself. But this did not make Yuki dread the ceremony any less. "Like I care."

"Oh, hurry along now."

After crossing to the other side of the castle, Yuki found herself half an hour later in one of the halls sitting on the floor beside her father, surrounded by his close subjects.

A man kneeled in front of them, bowing deeply such that his face was hidden from her view. This must be the man who defeated Ichinose-sama.

"You are Iguchi Kaimon's son, are you not?" the daimyo asked.

"Yes, milord."

"Is it true that not only a fortnight ago, you were engaged in a duel with Ichinose Yuugo by the riverbanks according to eyewitnesses?"

There was a pause, then, "Yes, sir."

"You do understand that private duels are prohibited by the clan?"

"I am aware of that, milord."

"Do you have a reasonable motivation for partaking in the duel?"

"Yes, sir," came the reply. "The man had insulted my sister in my presence and challenged myself to a duel which I could not resist on the account of my sister's honour."

"Ah, I have heard of your sister's husband's misfortune."

The man gave no response.

"Of course, in normal circumstances you would receive due punishment. However, in light of the fact that Ichinose is one of the clan's top dojo masters, I am making an exception." Yuki turned to her father. He rarely made exceptions for subordinates who break the rules.

"Who did you train under?"

"Koda-sensei, milord."

"Ah, no wonder, of course," the daimyo laughed. "Just like your father. Iguchi would be proud of his son surely, had he survived the war. Get up."

The man resumed a sitting position and as Yuki saw his face, her jaw dropped with recognition.

Apparently the surprise and recognition were mutual. Luckily for both of them, the daimyo chose that precise moment to reveal his desire to promote Iguchi Takezo to dojo master, so his shocked expression wasn't out of place.

Later, the ceremony was followed by a dinner with the daimyo, something Yuki was sure most samurai of lower rank would find an honour. But Iguchi Takezo seemed unfazed by this fact, and rather spent the whole evening casting glances at the daimyo's daughter rather impertinently.

Yuki found this rather annoying as occasionally she would catch his eye and see that he was finding the situation a personal entertainment. The gall of a lower-ranked samurai to laugh at her expense!

They were seated at a corner of the rectangular arrangement, separated by two advisers who later excused themselves early to seek audience with her father. This left the two of them rather secluded from the rest of the room's lively chatter about matters of the clan's interest.

"So, you were a samurai's daughter, all right."

Yuki glared at him sideways. "You are not to speak with the daughter of the daimyo in that manner," she asserted with an air of superiority.

"Indeed," Takezo replied with a mixture of amusement and fake politeness. "Just as princesses are not to go around pretending to be samurai on the streets."

"You will not mention that matter to anyone ever again, do you understand?" Yuki demanded with the coldest demeanor she could muster.

"As you wish, Your Highness." Out of the corner of her eyes, Yuki saw Iguchi Takezo's mouth curl into a smug smirk as he picked up his cup of tea. "It's just that one would wonder what a royal like you would be thinking to mingle with lowlives like myself. Surely you knew you stood no chance out there."

She couldn't help but throw him a glare. "I was seeking experience," she said matter-of-factly. "For my swordfighting skills."

"You could've gotten that within the castle, I'm sure. There's no need to be going on foolish trips."

"I'm not exactly privileged with that liberty," she interjected. "Princesses aren't supposed to be wielding swords, remember?" Her companion gave no comeback, and the rest of the room continued its chatter in polite undertones.

"Well," Takezo mustered a few minutes later. "seeing as I've been recently made a dojo master, perhaps I could help you in that aspect."
"No, thank you. I am perfectly capable of handling myself."

A snigger. Yuki had to calm herself down. Damn these stupid robes that she could barely move from her spot to punch that obnoxious man in his face.

To Miss Elizabeth Linney,

I suppose that by the time this letter reaches you, your ship would have already docked at the shores of India. I pray that the journey by sea had been tolerable, although I can only imagine that it must have been difficult to endure seeing only vast stretches of sea when you look out of the window. It has been a month since we parted, and I cannot deny that your presence has been sorely missed by the staff, especially by myself. But I am filled with happiness at the thought of your dream finally being realized. I recall that on the first day you arrived at Longbourne Hall you confided in me that travelling to the Far East is something you would have done, had you been born into a respectable family. As much as I would have wanted to enjoy your constant presence, I am glad there is still self-restraint within me to let you be free to pursue your dreams. Hence do go out there and teach the natives our language, the preachings of the Lord and of utmost importance, please do find happiness wherever you are. And in return, I too shall attempt to do the same.

I pray we meet again.

From Longbourne Hall, England, the xix of January, 1860

Mr. Chesfordshire

Nakamura Ayako found dead in apartment: Police confirms suicide

TOKYO, May 2017 – Breaking news: Famous actress Nakamura Ayako has been found dead around 11AM by neighbours today, apparently having taken her own life by an overdose of sleeping pills. The investigators of the case have ruled out foul play and confirmed that it was indeed suicide that ended the life of one of the most promising and celebrated young actresses of the country. Ever the public's favourite, Nakamura first broke into the movie scene with the hit romantic comedy The Shaolin and the Geisha, her very first of many movies with fellow actor and friend Sakamoto Naohito. Fans are now in mourning over the tragic loss of their idol.

"She was such a great inspiration for our generation," a 30-year-old female fan says amidst fellow mourners at a spontaneous memorial gathering outside the late actress' apartment. "It's really heartbreaking to know that she did it to herself."

There has been speculation over the past few months whether Nakamura's recent 5-week-long hospitalization was caused by a suicide attempt. Has she finally succeeded this time? However, staff of the Tokyo General Hospital where she received treatment denied rumours of a suicide attempt, but refused to give further details. Family members have also denied such rumours, finally revealing that the actress has long battled with cervical cancer since 2013. "She didn't want to publicly announce it because she didn't want it to discourage filmmakers from giving her roles," said her sister Nakamura Yuki in a public statement. "Even though the media was making up all these horrible things about her weight loss and speculating about her personal life, she just didn't want her illness to hinder her career." The newspaper also learnt from the family that Nakamura had always aspired to be in the business, although her goal was to become a seiyuu. "But after a while, she decided she enjoyed acting a lot, so she never did pursue it."

A statement was requested from Nakamura's closest friend in the industry, Sakamoto Naohito, but his manager only told the reporters that the actor was shocked by the events and would like to mourn in private. More on page 14: Did Sakamoto Naohito and Nakamura Ayako have a secret love affair?

Kyoto, December 1772


That word alone made Yuki falter as she removed her gear at the end of her daily parring session with Takezo at the dojo. She looked up at the man from whence the word came.

"Congratulations on the engagement," he said nonchalantly, determinedly avoiding her piercing gaze.

Yuki blinked a few times, then replied with as much indifference, "Oh, right. Thank you."

No words were exchanged after that, as both of them busied themselves with the task of putting away the gear and replacing the bokken onto their stands. Once they were accomplished, Takezo started walking out of the training hall without so much as a glance back to her.

Without thinking at all, Yuki shouted after him. "That's it?"

Takezo went rigid and halted in his steps, his back still facing Yuki. At his sides, his hands clenched into fists.

"So you're just going to walk away like that?"

Takezo tilted his head to the side to glance her way. "I don't know what you're talking about."

"Iguchi-dono, you will speak to the Princess in a respectful manner," one of the handmaidens within earshot interjected.

"No, no, it's—"

Finally, Takezo turned around to face her again, his eyes still avoiding her seeking gaze.

"You're right," he directed at the maid, then to Yuki with a deep bow, "I beg your forgiveness, Hime-sama."

It felt like hours that they stood there staring at each other before the last servant finally departed from the training hall under her orders.

"So that's… that's it then?" Yuki willed those wretched tears forming in her eyes, betraying her. No, she would not beg. Akizuki-hime was above that.

"You're not even going to fight for me," Yuki said quietly, her voice quivering. "I thought you didn't care about class, you didn't care about the rules; I thought you lived your life according to what you want. But you're a fraud; you lied—"

"I am not going to ruin your life, Yuki," Takezo interrupted in a calm but firm and slightly raised voice. "I am a samurai of 70koku. I cannot give you the life of a princess, a life that you're accustomed to. I will not take away with these same hands the very life you deserve—"

"The life I deserve is with you," Yuki declared with finality before giving an exasperated sigh. "You must know that there is only one man in my heart, surely you must know. And that man is not that daimyo's son from the other clan they intend me to marry."

His eyes met again with hers, the intensity of that gaze threatening to undo her but she continued. "I am speaking to you now, not as your lord's daughter, not as your clan's princess but as your true equal. This is my choice, Takezo."

He looked away, and after what seemed like forever he walked out of the hall, leaving her.

An hour later he would return to the same spot where he had left her waiting, the expression in his eyes a mixture of sheepish embarrassment and determined resolution, and they would simply stare at each other some more with half delirious amusement and half trepidation, for there is no other path they'd rather tread together right now than the daunting one in front of them.

"If death really isn't the end, then that night may not have been the very first time we met. Maybe we've been linked together for a lot longer. I can't say for sure, but I think that once a bond is formed, it never disappears. So even if we forget everything, we'll be joined together again someday."


Author's Notes:
{i} In this fic I attempted to show some personality traits of Ichigo and Rukia in the original characters but not in entirety. I do believe that in the concept of reincarnation in Bleach the physical body of the shinigami dissolves into reishi but the Heart (the manga's overarching theme) of the soul retains its integrity. I hope one can see Ichigo and Rukia in the original characters I've created.
{ii} I'm not a fan of AU fics neither do I write them at all, but I found that quote by Ichigo in Fade To Black very telling of Kubo's idea of reincarnation in his manga. Sadly it's only four lifetimes of love in this one. *tongue in cheek*
{iii} It was very ambitious to try and integrate all three themes of the contest (Princess and Warrior, Butler and Maid, Actors that meet during filming) but it was an interesting challenge! I found the second theme particularly difficult because of the (attempt at) archaic language style.
{iv} The red string of fate, also referred to as the red thread of destiny, red thread of fate, and other variants, is an East Asian belief originating from Chinese legend and is also used in Japanese legend. The two people connected by the red thread are destined lovers, regardless of time, place or circumstances. This magical cord may stretch or tangle, but never break. (wikipedia)